Germanisms in American Speech

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2008

23 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Process of Borrowing and its Different Categories

3. The Naturalization of the Loan Material

4. Reasons for Germanisms in American Speech

5. Presentation and Evaluation of the Research Project

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

8. Appendix
8.1. Questionnaire
8.2. Spiegel Online article

1. Introduction

In past years, many studies have been published concerning the influence of English, especially of American English, on the German language. Many people complain about the hotchpotch of English and German used by present-day youths. They blame the media for the destruction of the German language. This even led to the founding of an association, der Verein Deutsche Sprache, to protect the German language. However, few people seem to be aware that German has made a sizeable contribution to the American English vocabulary too, even though this is not as large as the contribution of English to the German language. As will be shown in this paper, words denoting foods, drinks, amusements, skiing activities, German inventions and parts of the education system were borrowed by the native population. Borrowing from German started with the early colonial settlers in the 17th century, settling in Pennsylvania and evolving the Pennsylvanian German which is not of interest in this paper as it is completely different from the usage of German words of an average American, and has continued to the present time.

This paper deals with Germanisms in American speech and is intended to give an overview of the concept of borrowing. Firstly, the processes of borrowing with its examples of distant and intimate borrowing are traced. Stanforth’s monograph Deutsche Einflüsse auf den englischen Wortschatz in Geschichte und Gegenwart serves as the basis. Afterwards, in accordance to Haugen, his categorisation of the loan material into importation, substitution, partial-substitution and their subdivisions loan words, loan meanings, loan coinages, loan blends and loan compounds are represented with examples. The following paragraphs elaborate on the naturalization of the loan material. It is shown that the typographic representation of words, the orthography, the pronunciation and the grammar can give information on the state of naturalization. Furthermore, the loan material can change its part of speech or meaning after having been borrowed. In the fourth main paragraph the reasons for the large amount of Germanisms, such as the lack of American English equivalents or the striving for profit and prestige, are explained in detail.

The last main part of this paper rounds off the theories and deals with a survey, which I have carried out online, on Germanisms in American speech. Terms discussed before are applied to the results. It is shown that some German semantic categories are preferably used, whereas the so-called nonce coinages, which are explained later, are not known by the majority. Germanisms that are polysemous or restricted in meaning, in contrast to the German original, are emphasized. This paragraph on the survey ends with those words that are not perceived as German and tries to name some reasons for it.

2. The Process of Borrowing and its Different Categories

Generally speaking, the term ”borrowing” refers to a linguistic form taken over by one language or dialect from another (Crystal 2003: s.v. borrowing). Haugen describes it in more detail. For him,

every speaker attempts to reproduce previously learned linguistic patterns in an effort to cope with new linguistic situations. Among the new patterns which he may learn are those of a language different from his own, and these too he may attempt to reproduce. If he reproduces the new linguistic patterns, not in the context of the language in which he learned them, but in the context of another, he may be said to have ‘borrowed’ them from one language into another (Haugen 1950: 212).

Weinreich, however, prefers the term interference. According to him, cultural contact on an international and intranational basis is accompanied by linguistic contact and results in a deviation from the norms of either language (Stanforth 1996: 15). Today both terms are used, whereas interference, having often been criticized, is used in different contexts as well. Both, Haugen and Weinreich, agree on the fact that all borrowing is predicated on some minimum of bilingual mastery of the two languages (Haugen 1950: 210). This, however, does not mean that the speaker has to be totally fluent in both languages, but rather that the speaker must have an idea of the meaning of the borrowed expression.

Even though, as shown above, the theory of borrowing can be described, the process itself is hard to observe. The act of borrowing takes place on the level of parole – a term coined by Saussure which describes the concrete utterances produced by individual speakers in actual situations (Crystal 2003: s.v. parole) – and is a personal matter. If the individual borrowed item should enter the langue – the language system shared by a community of speakers (Crystal 2003: s.v. langue) – it has to be accepted by the community in question. That is why the act of borrowing either has to be carried out by a large number of speakers or that the borrowed word has to reach an audience as large as possible.

This can happen in two ways: in the way of distant borrowing or of intimate borrowing. Intimate borrowing, which is typical of the borrowing in the United States of America because of its large number of German immigrants, often takes place orally with the result that colloquial, dialectal and slang words enter the langue, too. Arriving in a foreign country, the immigrants may not be able to express certain words either due to a lack of language skills or due to the fact that this certain word does not exist in the language of the new country. That seems to be why they need to add some German words to their immigrant English. In the course of time, these words come to the native’s attention and are used by the native as well. The importation of new words will happen more quickly if those German words are written down and shown to a wide audience, e.g. on posters in shops or in newspapers (Stanforth 1996: 22f).

In contrast to intimate borrowing, distant borrowing, as in British English, predominantly happens via writing. In travel accounts, newspaper articles and, because of new discoveries and inventions, in (natural-) scientific writing one comes across German words. Furthermore, it is advisable not to translate German institutions, abstract terms and objects. That is why in these contexts German words appear as well. However, the first appearance in a printed text does not provide conclusive proof that a word already belongs to the langue. It rather has to be accepted by the language community.

To categorize the loan material, Haugen has developed the concept of importation and substitution, based on Betz’s works, later enlarged by Duckworth by the type partial substitution. Haugen calls the original pattern the model and recognizes that the loan may be more or less similar to it. “If the loan is similar enough to the model so that a native speaker would accept it as his own, the borrowing speaker may be said to have imported the model into his language” (Haugen 1950: 212). Duckworth divided this category further into foreign word and loan word with the former being non-integrated and the latter integrated. As this distinction caused trouble, present-day linguists no longer make it. Today only the category loan word exists that comprises words and phrases taken untranslated from German which can show inflections formed by the addition of English bound morphemes such as Zeitgeist[1], Schadenfreude, autobahns and yodelling (Stanforth 1976: 292).

If the model, according to Haugen, has been reproduced inadequately, a similar pattern from the borrowing language has normally been substituted. Words and phrases which are substituted can be divided into further groups. On the one hand there are the loan meanings that comprise indigenous words to which the meaning of the foreign word is transferred, such as the noun ‘staff’[2]. Originally, it means ‘stick’ but under the influence of German Stab the meaning has been expanded to a group of army officers who help a commanding officer (Stanforth 1996: 28).

On the other hand there are the loan coinages comprising loan formations and loan creations. Loan creations are coinages that are independent of the foreign word but are created out of the desire to replace a foreign word. An often-quoted example is the English word ‘brandy’ that was substituted for the French word cognac. The fact that mostly French words are used as examples of loan creations shows that it is not a phenomenon happening very often with German words (Stanforth 1996: 29). The category loan formation can be further divided into loan translation and loan rendering. Loan translations are exact translations of the elements of the foreign word, such as ‘Spirit of the Time’ for German Zeitgeist or ‘economic miracle’ for German Wirtschaftswunder, whereas loan renderings are free translations of part of the foreign word element, e.g. ‘homesickness’ for German Heimweh or the unsuccessful attempt of ‘beyond-man’ for Nietsche’s Übermensch (now replaced with ‘superman’) (Stanforth 1996: 29).

To the third group, the partial substitution comprising composite words, in which one part is borrowed, another one substituted, belong loan blends and loan compounds. Loan blends try to “render a given foreign model in the host language using partly foreign and partly translated elements and they are usually compounds of free morphemes” (Stanforth 1976: 292), such as ‘housefrau’ or ‘Third Reich’. Loan compounds, however, are “compounded by means of either free or bound morphemes to produce a completely new lexical item having no German model” (Stanforth 1976: 292), such as ‘angst-prone’ or ‘kitschness’. Sometimes, the borrowed material starts as composite words, but is replaced by loan words or loan translations later, such as German Doppelgänger that started as ‘double-ganger’ and is now only used as ‘doppelganger’ or ‘doppelgaenger’ (Stanforth 1996: 30). Phonetics might be the reason for this, as Stanforth points out: It will be more difficult to cope with a foreign articulation, if it does not coincide with the word boundary.

As shown, the borrowing of foreign words can happen on two ways: either via distant or via intimate borrowing with the latter being the predominant way in the United States of America. When a word has been borrowed, it can be totally imported, partially substituted or totally substituted. But how the word or expression is naturalised in the host language, is shown in the following paragraphs.

3. The Naturalization of the Loan Material

As the distinction between loan and foreign words has not been successful, the OED, as Stanforth points out, makes a more pragmatic distinction. It differentiates between naturals, denizens, aliens and casuals. Casuals are not only indigenous words, but also include naturalized expressions such as rucksack. Denizens are “words fully naturalized as to use, but not as to form, inflection or pronunciation” (Stanforth 1996: 35), e.g. flak. Aliens, however, are “names of foreign objects, titles etc., which we require often to use, and for which we have no native equivalents, e.g. heldentenor” (Stanforth 1996: 35). Casuals are “foreign words of the same class, but not in habitual use, which for special and temporary purposes occur in books of foreign travel, letters of foreign correspondents, and the like”, e.g. berufverbot” (Stanforth 1996: 35).

Whether or not a word or expression is fully naturalized can be deciphered by various means. Firstly, the typographic representation of the loan material in a text gives a clue. Italics and inverted commas usually show the degree of foreignness of a word. Furthermore, the capitalization of German words indicates the stage of naturalization. “The more foreign a German noun is perceived to be, the more likely it will be to retain its capitalization” (Meier 2000: 174). Meier carried out a very interesting survey on how different dictionaries represent the foreignness of German words and how various subjects perceive it. He comes to the conclusion that dictionaries “provide little consistent guidance for determining the foreign status of a word” (Meier 2000: 175) and are often incongruent with the subject’s perception. Moreover, the hyphen in partially substituted words indicates the naturalization. The absence of it can be a symbol of a more intense integration (Clyne 1967: 219). Words that have not been totally naturalized are often translated, paraphrased or only written down in a text after a native equivalent has been mentioned (Stanforth 1996: 33).

Secondly, when a borrowed word enters the langue, its orthography is usually adapted to that of the host language. Therefore, the ß -letter is often changed into ss and the dots of the umlauts are left out (Stanforth 1996: 87). Other orthographic adaptations do not occur very often. There are no general rules that can be applied to every word because not every word makes use of the orthographic changes. A general tendency of orthographic changes can be read in Stanforth’s book (1996: 88) but will not be elaborated on here. In 1971, Eichhoff comments on the American English orthographic adaptation. He says that “die Tendenz zur orthographischen Angleichung an herkömmliche Muster … eher ab- als zunimmt. […] Derjenige, der Englisch schreibt, ist an exotische Schreibweisen und unklare Beziehungen zwischen Schriftzeichen und Laut gewöhnt“ (Eichoff 1971: 401). Stanforth (1996: 87) remarks that if lots of words with the same sequences of graphemes, such as sch, tsch, pf, tz, are borrowed they will soon act as a model and need not be changed.

Furthermore, when a borrowed word enters the host language, the most nearly related sounds of the native tongue are substituted for those of the other language (Haugen 1950: 215). Which sounds are substituted for which will not be discussed here. Similar to the phonetic substitution is the substitution with regard to grammar. In 1933, Bloomfield (1933: 453) already said that “grammatically, the borrowed form is subjected to the system of the borrowing language both as to syntax and as to the indispensable inflections and the fully current ‘living’ constructions of composition and word formation”. New and foreign words can be imported into lexis of the host language with ease, but the syntax is closed to foreign influences. Inflectional endings, such as the plural or genitive –s, are used according to those of the borrowing language, if they are totally naturalized. Only some keep their indigenous endings, such as gastarbeiter and lederhosen (Stanforth 1996: 93 – 97). Adjectives are not declined, articles are left out and nouns no longer have a grammatical gender. It is reductive process.


[1] To indicate that words are of German origin, loan words are written in italics throughout the text.

[2] American indigenous words, loan translations and loan compounds or blends with no German model are written in inverted commas.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Germanisms in American Speech
University of Cologne
Differences in American and British English
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Germanisms, American, Speech, Differences, American, British, English
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Karolin Büttner (Author), 2008, Germanisms in American Speech, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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